South Philly's Birra Takes Mac & Cheese to a Whole New Place: a Pizza-Dough Bowl

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 4, 2012

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Rolling in the dough: The mac and cheese pizza at Birra is delicious, oozy joy

Photo by Felicia Perretti

Strictly speaking, no one really needs to have a mac and cheese pizza “Birra bowl” in their life. In fact, given the state of this country’s collective cholesterol and waistline and our ever-expanding national gut, this calorie-delivery-system could be considered the mortal enemy of the healthy-eating crowd. But just as we go to concerts to revel in the music and not worry about the long-term damage to our hearing, or gulp down a fourth or fifth liver-stressing glass of beer or wine because it tastes so damn good, so, too, does this particular Birra bowl exist for wholly laudable reasons: pleasure and gluttony and cheesy, oozy joy.

What’s not to love? A heaping helping of macaroni, all stringy and rich with fontina, pecorino and mozzarella, tossed with herbs and breadcrumbs, is baked in the pizza oven covered by a protective cap of dough. When it’s done, the entire smoky, steamy construction is flipped over, the bowl removed, and voila! The Birra bowl: Mac and cheese in a pizza-dough vessel. Best of all, any pizza on the menu at Birra can be ordered this way.

The bowl, in fact, is a nice stand-in for so much of the Birra experience. It wins you over by virtue of ebullience, flavor and audacity. Judging by crowds, this seems to be just what we’ve been waiting for.

Not everything here is about heft; no serious restaurant could survive on that alone. What’s more remarkable than the size of the physical dishes is the size of the flavors, many of which seem to have been somehow magnified.

“Spreads and breads” is a handy example, the white bean ragu silky and unexpectedly lively, the roasted garlic pesto squirted into a pile that tasted of deeply concentrated and nutty alium. Cured olive pesto was just that, a singular expression of oil-glossy black olives. (We found an errant whole pit in ours. Too bad: The pesto was otherwise delicious.) Of the trio of accompanying breads, paradoxically fluffy, dense focaccia and oil-crispy baguette were the highlights, though flatbread (really just less-cooked pizza dough) did provide a nice background for the spreads’ expressive flavors.

The dough is the real highlight, however, when used for its main purpose: as the base to Birra’s satisfying pizzas. There are more than a dozen of them here, ranging from the margherita, with its fresh mozzarella and cured tomatoes, to the puttanesca, which, though half a step too salty for me, was nonetheless a good-faith effort at recreating that piquant sauce. One slice was perfect, the salinity of the meaty white anchovies, capers and olive pesto softened by garlic pesto and mozzarella; two, however, would have required more beer to quench the resulting thirst than I wanted to drink.

Regardless, this is a multiple beer kind of place, not just to wash down the food but to take advantage of the selection, which reminds me of a well-edited list of Foodery favorites, as well as some you’ve likely never encountered. Ask for guidance; the staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

A bottle of Menabrea Ambrata worked particularly well with the meatball al forno, baseball-sized fists of veal and beef—from a secret family recipe—that were as tender as any I’ve had recently. And while they could have used just a bit more salt on their own, they were perfect when dragged through the gently piquant tomato sauce and a light dusting of parmigiano.

Mussels were also thoughtfully conceived and generously portioned, the long slices of dried Asian chili sparking the garlicky, complex Peroni broth to life. And the next time I visit for a simpler meal, I’m likely to just sit at the bar with a beer and an unpressed fontina, roasted porchetta panini—with a beautifully seasoned pork belly-wrapped rib loin that’s seen two-and-a-half hours in the oven in the middle—and revel in the happiness that squirts out of each bite.

All of this is served in a space that’s both comfortable and cool—striated surfaces, televisions, the music barely audible through the thrum of conversation, the smoky perfume of the oven hovering over everything. Birra’s well worth your time.

1700 E. Passyunk Ave. 267.324.3127.

Cuisine: Casual Italian with moxie.

Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11:30am-10pm (pizza available until midnight); Fri.-Sat., 11:30am-11pm (pizza until 1am).

Price range: $6-$19.

Atmosphere: Warm and convivial.

Food: Generous—in every sense of the word.

Service: Helpful and well-versed.

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